EPA proposes penalties in Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trying to impose new accountability measures in the failing effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the Obama administration is considering an odd-sounding threat.

Stop missing deadlines for cleaning up polluted waterways, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would tell states in the bay watershed.

Or we'll . . . cut off funding for cleaning up polluted waterways.

That idea, announced Monday in a new "draft strategy" for the Chesapeake, might sound as if the EPA is threatening to shoot itself in the foot.

But it is at the heart of the Obama administration's plans to overhaul the failed cleanup of the Chesapeake, where federal and state governments have repeatedly broken promises to reduce pollution.

EPA officials said this tactic, and other possible punishments announced Monday, are intended to erase the sense that deadlines mean little around the bay.

"It is counterproductive, and nobody wants to ever get to that point," said J. Charles Fox, a special adviser to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "But it is a way of assuring that in fact you can have a productive conversation" with states that are lagging behind their goals, Fox said.

The strategy is designed to flesh out President Obama's promise of a "new era" of federal leadership for the Chesapeake. The bay, where pollution from manure, sewage and fertilizer creates low-oxygen "dead zones," has not improved significantly, despite a 25-year, nearly $6 billion cleanup.

To work, the strategy would require two things. One is rare; the other, unprecedented.

The first would be for the federal government to dig up little-used powers to threaten states that exceed their pollution "budgets" -- limits on the total pollution that flows through their rivers to the bay.

One threat under consideration is for the EPA to object to state-issued environmental permits for sewage plants, farms or stormwater systems, if federal officials think the permits are too lax.

Another would be to rejigger the budget. That might mean forcing states that don't fix pollution from farms to cut even more pollution from another source, such as sewage plants.

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